The marvellous Gretchen Hirsch grabbed my attention early on with her fresh approach to blogging and sewing, her bio: ‘Let’s talk sewing, feminism and kitties’, and her love of vintage style – and great tattoos. I was immediately drawn in. I bought my first Gertie book in March last year and read all of the sections on techniques and choosing fabric and styles, but it isn’t a book for total newbies like me, and it wasn’t until December when I was finally brave enough to make a start. One benefit of Gertie’s books is that you can enjoy vintage inspired styles without trying to make heads or tails out of a yellowed and torn true vintage pattern (I do love some of those, mind you), and the elements of her dresses fit together, so once you have mastered say, her pencil skirt pattern, or bodice, that pattern can be made to be part of a number of the dresses outlined in her book. This is especially helpful if, like me, you often adjust patterns for fit.
I made the ‘Faux Sarong Dress’ from Gertie’s Ultimate Dress Book, with some modifications I list in this blog. The ‘Faux Sarong Dress’ is on page 139 of the book (shown below). It comes with 15 instructions, along with some comprehensive dressmaking and sewing advice earlier in the book, covering everything from fabrics to finishes.
I’ve since had a lot of comments on the resulting gold dress, so here is how it went down. Like all great sewing projects, it was done with friends. Five of us made the dress, albeit all a bit differently, so I want to first of all give a big thank you to my sewing bee friends, and Loretta from Bluebelle Vintage Clothing for the guidance and encouragement.
The book: Gertie’s Ultimate Dress Book
The first step: Choose your size (page 129 of the book) and do a toile before you cut your ‘real’ fabric.
In Australian and British terminology, a calico or “toile” is a version of a garment made to test a pattern, usually in a cheaper material.
This isn’t necessary for a circle skirt or loose fit top, but I highly recommend doing a toile or ‘calico’ for this dress and any others that are fitted and made in fabric without stretch. It doesn’t take long to whip up a toile (no zips, no agonising over stitch perfection or matching thread, etc) and you find out pretty quickly where the pattern needs adjusting to fit you. You really don’t want to go to all the trouble of lining up grain perfectly, cutting carefully, sewing all the elements together and putting in the lining and doing finishing touches only to find your dress does not fit. Use whatever inexpensive fabric you have around. In my case I used a cotton polka dot fabric from Spotlight that I happened to have around the house.
Five of us sewing bee friends made versions of this dress together, and while each of us had personal touches and a different experience, the two of us who made a toile version first were the happiest with the finished fit. I believe making a toile also made the process a bit smoother, and I would do it again for any dress.
A tutorial by Subversive Femme (Thank you, Sharelyn, for spotting this) mentions that she did two toiles, and also added some straight steel bones as well as the spiral steel bones, and a waist stay. (I only used spiral steel bones in mine) It looks stunning! She writes that ‘I didn’t experience any of the sizing weirdness some of the blogosphere has been talking about (luckily).’ Some in our group who did the dress without a toile experienced real fit frustrations. I would highly recommend a toile (or two) for this dress.
I did one toile, and I am currently re-using some of the fabric from that toile to do another version of the dress, because I love it so much.
Gertie’s pattern sizing goes from size 2 to 16.
If you are anything like me, your size does not always fit a standard garment or pattern. I am often the equivalent of a ‘Medium’ top, ‘Small’ waist and ‘Large’ hip, so I am used to paying close attention to clothing measurements, rather than dress sizes. For this Gertie pattern, you use pattern pieces for a bodice and a pencil skirt that attach together to make into a dress, with an added shoulder strap and sarong-look sash. The good news is you can make those two halves in different pattern sizes to suit your shape, so I made the top and bottom in different sizes, and decided to do the rest with the waist darts.
I made a quick toile using the polkadot fabric and this showed me right away that the hips were going to be too snug. This can apparently be quite common, so I do recommend a toile to check fit even if the sizes look right on paper. I widened the hip area to accommodate my curves, and also trimmed back some of the width below the hips, tapering down to the knee, for more of a ‘wiggle’ effect. (If you have wider hips, like mine, you may wish to do the same with patterns like these, or the width of the hips could just continue all the way down the rest of the skirt in a fabric without stretch, giving an unintentionally boxy look.) The Gertie pencil skirt is in 3 pieces, one piece at front and two at back, so you will want to distribute any size adjustments fairly evenly around all of the pieces.
I also found that I had to add a little room at the top back of the bodice, where it was snug, so I removed the back panels of the bodice and fashioned a slightly more V shaped centre back pattern piece to replace the centre back pattern piece that had been mostly rectangular. I found that really easy to do. And presto. The fit was now working, after perhaps an afternoon spent fiddling with a toile. Next up, I wanted slight modifications to the style.
I made a few modifications to this dress suit my personal preferences. Here is a list:
- I tailored the hips and lower skirt for fit and shaping, as mentioned.
- I tailored the centre back pattern pieces of the bodice for fit, as mentioned.
- I deepened the sweetheart neckline to my preference.
- I went strapless instead of the single strap style in the book.
- As five of us were doing the dress to match, we all added a stole or shoulder drape. Most of us made it detachable. I used a vintage 1950s pin to keep it in place on the day, but this would be ideally attached with press studs on the inside if I planned to wear it often.
- We all added fringing to the bottom of the dress, and some to the sash. I like the resulting look.
I didn’t want the strap sewn in, as I like strapless dresses on my shape (it can help draw attention to the shoulders and can balance wider hips) and the truth is I can never find any off-the-rack strapless dresses that fit, offer adequate support or stay up properly. As Gertie recommends you bone the bodice, I figured I would go all the way and try to bone the bust fully for support. It worked a charm, but not before a little hiccup, as outlined below.
(I ‘block fused’ the bodice fabric to make it a little more stiff, as the gold fabric had a bit of a loose weave. As it is, I think the bodice could be stiffened more to avoid some of the wrinkling effect.)
There are many ways to bone a bodice. The image in Gertie’s book for this particular pattern had boning that came to beneath the breast and stopped (but earlier in the book, on page 88 she says that boning placement is ultimately up to you). I chose to bone my bodice all the way up the princess seam (vertically, over the nipple) with spiral steel bones. I may have cut the boning a touch too long, or perhaps the pattern wasn’t quite curved enough for this, but when I first did the boning it looked marvellous from the front but stuck out in points from the side. Disaster! The dress no longer hugged the body at the top of the bodice, sadly. My sewing guru Loretta of Bluebelle Vintage Clothing came up with a brilliant save, however, creating one little pleat on each side, along the top edge, to curve the fabric back in towards the body. This worked beautifully. (Note the little bodice pleats, below.)
Here it is! :
We had a lovely time out in our gold dresses, with our matching Elvis.
From left to right, I am with Sharelyn, Vicki, Kane, Erica, Suzie and Jaci:
After much searching by all of us, it was Sharelyn (at far right in the photo above) who found the perfect gold fabric. Suzie, who was the first to make the dress, came up with the fringe idea, which I love. Everyone’s dresses were different, but we did it as a team and it was perfect for our day out at the Parkes Elvis Festival.
I love my dress, and have worn it since, including while posing for artists for a UNICEF fundraiser, below.
I am now re-using what pieces of the toile I can to make a version in a more casual fabric, with different bodice boning to see how I can improve the fit. In particular, I want to see if I can make the bust pointier in true 1950s style. Wish me luck.
I hope you enjoyed this post and you give a Gertie dress a go. I’ll definitely be trying more of her dresses.
Happy sewing, all.
PS I’m still a newbie, but I’ve had the help of wonderful experts to encourage me along the way. I want to share the journey and their knowledge, so I am starting a sewing vlog that goes live later this month. Check our ‘Sewing Vintage with Tara Moss’ page on Instagram and go to the Youtube channel if you want to subscribe in time to watch the first eps coming soon!
- All photography graciously provided by Berndt Sellheim.